I don’t just mean for Valentine’s Day, either. Don’t get me wrong, The Shape of Water is perfect for a date flick as well. Assuming both parties can get past the fact one half of the romance is a bipedal humanoid fish creature. And really, why couldn’t you? Fish man is hot.
No, The Shape of Water is perfect not just for your romantic celebration this week, this movie is a perfect symbol for today’s social landscape. Guillermo Del Toro used the familiar construct of a human/nonhuman romance to craft a movie about more than romance, but serves as a symbol for the ongoing struggle of marginalized communities against society’s oppressors. Every choice regarding the heroes, villains, and setting are designed to tell the story of a group of outcasts winning against hatred.
In a modern world facing a frightening resurgence of white supremacy, sexism, and other forms of hate, The Shape of Water is exactly the movie we need to escape it all and remember the beautiful possibilities of acceptance.
Everything starts with the movie’s protagonist, a mute janitor named Elisa. When I say protagonist, I don’t mean “the woman who inspires everyone else to act,” the kind of woman who is called the hero but takes no active role in anything. That’s not the case here. Elisa drives everything that happens. A mute, middle-aged woman dominates this movie. She’s fantastic.
What makes her so special (besides a masterclass performance from Sally Hawkins) is that she is able to control this movie because of how much agency is afforded her while never losing the sense of injustice and resistance present because of her disability. From the moment she appears, Elisa is established as a multidimensional woman of noticeable strengths and weaknesses. Even better, her being mute is not treated as something special or remarkable. Instead The Shape of Water uses her condition to establish just how normal she is to highlight the injustice of the discrimination against her.
Elisa is a remarkably human and a relatable woman to place into this kind of fantasy love story. She lives in her apartment enjoying old black-and-white dance musicals with her neighbor. She has her daily morning routine before work. Her considerable sexual agency is introduced immediately through the allotted time she makes to masturbate during this morning routine. Elisa is charismatic, talented, and has a strong sense of right and wrong. She’s also lonely, somewhat bitter, and headstrong to a fault.
She’s so unremarkable in theory that it really strikes home when people treat her differently. Which, of course, is entirely the point and the reason it hurts to see this kind of discrimination. Elisa has one thing that separates her from everyone else, and unfortunately, said difference gives other people enough reason to overlook everything they have in common with her.
The same thing happens with those closest to Elisa, which is most likely why they are close to her to begin with. Outcasts will understandably flock together and this most certainly occurs with Elisa and her friends. Her roommate and best friend, Giles, is an older gay man struggling to make a living illustrating ads. Her best work friend, Zelda, is a black woman living in a time of immense racial discrimination. Even the Asset, the codename for the amphibious creature, is an outcast. He is taken from his home and treated brutally in strange confines.
What’s remarkable is how each of these characters are also afforded the agency to choose for themselves in the conflicts of the movie, and how they transcend the easy stereotypes my descriptions could have bottlenecked them in to. I’d give most of the credit here to the performances Del Toro gets out of a damn good cast.
I can’t really tell you anything about Giles that doesn’t fall into stereotypes. He awkwardly visits a horrible diner just to awkwardly flirt with the man behind the counter. He obsesses over musicals and lives as a lonely starving artist. Despite it all, you never feel like the tropes betray him. Zelda is much the same. She is an overweight black woman with a deadbeat husband and a smart mouth. Does this paint her into a corner? Not at all. The script and directing provides Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer considerable room to breathe real humanity into the tropey foundation of their characters.
What results is a trio of people who each face separate discriminations that share much in common, and as such, band together to provide comfort, support, and companionship.
This is such an important aspect of the shared resistance of not just these characters, but marginalized communities as a whole, especially with what seems like a new rise of white nationalism throughout the world. Often lost in the stories of the various civil rights movements is the role of other oppressed groups in helping those fights. LGBTQ Americans fought hard for the rights of black Americans, and vice versa. Both helped fight for women’s rights, as obviously women did for them. While each group may fight for their own rights, their victories were important for everyone else struggling against oppression and hate.
Unfortunately, cooperation can sometimes be sparse as even these various communities hold their own prejudices. Transgender gay Americans will face exclusion by cisgender gay Americans. Black Americans may oppose LGBTQ rights, while white women fought against black Americans shortly after their own civil rights movement. Just because someone knows what it is like to fight for basic human rights of acceptance and self-determination doesn’t mean they will accept those rights for everyone.
The Shape of Water succeeds in giving each character their individual resistance as part of their larger shared resistance. Giles’s reluctance to help Elisa fades after dual discriminations over his sexuality. Zelda helps her friend, but also strikes a blow against a system which keeps her and her husband down. Which, ideally, is the way you hope things to be. There’s no judgment from any of the three heroes for the actions of the others.
One of the best scenes in the movie takes place after Elisa first has sex with the Asset and Zelda can tell immediately. Zelda’s reaction can basically be summed up as “how?” and then “good for you”.
While the most supportive actions involve Giles and Zelda risking their lives for Elisa, Elisa does support them in turn. She chokes down awful pieces of keylime pie to support Giles’s flirting at the diner. She listens to Zelda’s daily complaints about her husband and passes no judgment. Are these small acts in comparison to helping her rescue the Asset and then covering it up? Of course, but perhaps that’s the point. You do what you can to support each other.
After all, they all share a common oppressor. It’s the same oppressor now as it was in the time period the movie takes place in; toxically masculine, racist, sexist white men.
One of the bigger complaints about The Shape of Water, despite praise for Michael Shannon’s performance, is how unambiguously and cartoonishly evil the villain of the film is. I won’t even try to deny it because there’s no point. Strickland is little more than a caricature of the terrible white man. He spits racism and sexism like he’s chewing on it and makes rape threats. He takes the idea of a silent woman so far that he covers his wife’s mouth during sex (with a hand rotting because of two severed fingers badly reattached). There are no shades of gray to Richard Strickland. He’s a bad man you never stop hating.
Thing is, that’s not a problem. It’s an intentional move supporting the film’s overall themes and social messages. If The Shape of Water is a modern, aquatic Beauty and the Beast, then Strickland is its Gaston. He’s there as the exaggerated obstacle inflicting his privilege and bigotry on everyone around him. Frankly, I don’t find anything wrong with that. Not every movie needs a complicated villain. This isn’t Strickland’s story. If Elisa, Zelda, and Giles are all participating in individual resistances against a larger system, than Strickland is the individual representing that system.
It’s a terrific choice for modern society. Unfortunately, men like Strickland have come raging back. Not that they ever went anywhere, but it felt like we were on the brink of moving on. At the very least it was shameful to feel the way some of these people did. Now their worst traits are no longer hidden from the public, but celebrated. It’s a horrifying cultural reverse of what is and is not socially acceptable.
As a result, Strickland doesn’t feel archaic, no more than the prejudice against Elisa, Zelda, and Miles does. It feels stunningly real and relevant. Del Toro knew this and used a Cold War setting to make a point. He said as much in an interview:
“Also, the movie is a movie about our problems today and about demonizing the other and about fearing or hating the other, and how that is a much more destructive position than learning to love and understand. I thought, ‘Well, if I do it about today it becomes too topical about the news. We get it in the news and social media and blah, blah, blah.’ But if I say once upon a time in 1962, it becomes a fairy tale for troubled times. People can lower their guard a little bit more and listen to the story and listen to the characters and talk about the issues, rather than the circumstances of the issues.”
He made a fantastic choice.
Of course, something Del Toro may not have been aware of because of the recentness of the moment is how well The Shape of Water relates to the #MeToo movement. Here, I don’t think Del Toro quite meant what he accomplished like he did with the issues of discrimination. To summarize quickly; The Shape of Water is a sexual movie in ways Del Toro doesn’t typically attempt. Physical attraction and desire plays a significant role in the events of the movie, and it features quite a bit of nudity.
Where it succeeds is the reason behind this sexuality, and what it is focused on. Namely, it’s focused on Elisa’s unabashed, unfettered sexual agency and comes at a time where women are trying to force a much-needed cultural movement against men taking said agency away from them. As I mentioned earlier, Elisa’s sexual drive is established practically right away. Our introduction to her features a morning routine that always makes time to masturbate in the bath tub. She drives the relationship with the Asset. She makes the choice to have sex with it for the first time. Every step along their physical relationship occurs first through Elisa’s desire and actions.
She’s a fantastic character for a lot of reasons, but this decision to let a middle-aged mute woman be such a sexual protagonist really stands out. Arguably to a fault, in fact; another common criticism of the movie is that the feelings and desire of the Asset were arguably not made as clear as they needed to be. By the end of the movie there is no doubt our sexy fish man loves and wants Elisa. However, the movie puts such emphasis on Elisa’s feelings and power over her sexual desire that the other half of the romance might not have been fleshed out as needed.
Still, giving Elisasuch authority over her own love life could not come at a more appreciated time. It ties back to how The Shape of Water gives Elisa authority over the entire narrative. Giles and Zelda may be supporting characters to Elisa’s storyline, but The Shape of Water tries its best (and succeeds, I think) in giving them as much power over their own actions, which amplifies the emotional weight of their part in her resistance and their own.
And really, that is the heart of this story. It’s the heart of what makes The Shape of Water such a perfectly timed treat of a movie. It is a story of societal outcasts choosing love and support to defeat the worst traits of mankind. They choose love for each other over hate for those oppressing them. They choose to act not out of revenge or spite but from a place of strong morality and justice. All three overcome long-developed fear to do the right thing.
The Shape of Water is like an R-rated Steven Universe, focusing on positivity defeating negativity and love trumping hate. Del Toro purposely made a statement by choosing a woman with a disability as his hero. He chose a gay man and a black woman to help her, and a cartoonishly evil white man as their main obstacle, for the same reason.
By the way, I haven’t even gotten into the fourth member of the hero crew, a Soviet spy who takes Elisa’s side over his homeland because it’s the right thing to do.
While there’s nothing particularly rare about these characters featuring in great roles anymore, but I can’t think off the top of my head of another movie like this, featuring this kind of representation in this kind of movie. I can’t think of a movie or show with these kinds of characters in a fantasy tale so focused on a message of love and acceptance. And while I’m sure they’re out there, I can’t think of this many characters in this kind of story with this kind of critical, potentially award-winning acclaim.
Award-winning fantasy movies aren’t exactly unheard of. The Lord of the Rings won a bajillion Oscars. Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth was nominated for and won a few as well. What makes The Shape of Water different is the focus on so many underrepresented characters in a fantasy story that will be an award frontrunner. It checks off damn near every wish on the list. Having characters like these and a story like this receive so much prestigious attention means a great deal towards representation. Much like how Wonder Woman and (hopefully) the upcoming Black Panther will shatter the idea of female and black superheroes not ruling the box office, The Shape of Water shows how amazing genre fiction featuring a diverse cast will bring significant repute to directors and actors.
Add it all together, and it is the perfect movie released at the perfect time. Guillermo Del Toro crafted a movie rejecting the returning prejudice of modern society, the negativity of grimdark, and the control of men over the sex lives of women. And he did it all in the form of a beautiful, aquatic Beauty and the Beast-style fairy tale. It’s not the most surprising or original movie in the world, but who cares if it nails the execution?
Go watch The Shape of Water, people. It’s wonderful.
Images Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures